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StreamGraphs display of Twitter messaging associated with the July 7, 2009 street demonstrations in Urumqi, China. G.R. Boynton "News as Urumqi; How to Understand what ‘The News’ Has Been and Is Becoming".

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Dr. G. R. Boynton—Professor of Political Science, University of Iowa
Nominated by Nicole Saylor, Head, Digital Library Services, University of Iowa Libraries.

Although a political science scholar, G. R. Boynton notes that the “constant” throughout his academic career has been computer-related projects, from a Univac in graduate school to considerably more sophisticated equipment and projects today. Professor Boynton has received the 2010 Primary Source Award for Research for a project that deploys eight computers in the Main Library at the University of Iowa to continually harvest from the Web data on new media trends. He explains the genesis for much of his recent research on his Web site:

The economic institutional structure that has supported “the news” for the last century or two is falling away. The news is going to be remade without much left of what we have known as news media. It is an exciting time for journalists . . . but an equally exciting time for people interested in communication and politics. We need to be paying careful attention to the changes that are transpiring.

Lately Boynton has focused on Twitter, the widely used micro-blogging platform. In his online article “News as Urumqi; How to Understand what ‘The News’ Has Been and Is Becoming”, he compares news of the July 2009 violence between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the Western Chinese city of Urumqi, as reported by Twitter and The Washington Post. Based on his study, Boynton identified three factors that distinguish social media from traditional media, summarized below:

  • Audience segmentation: Boynton observes that news for Britney Spears fans will differ significantly from news for missile defense watchers.
  • News compilation: While Twitter messages are limited to 140 characters, restricting the amount of content that can be communicated in a single message, the platform’s ease in connecting with other users enables the highly efficient and rapid aggregation of news from a multitude of contributors.
  • News to market timing: The Twitter news reporting on the Urumqi riots peaked two days before The Washington Post “broke” the story in the mainstream media. Fans of Urumqi news on Twitter would have had a comprehensive “real time” account of the riots long before the first Post article appeared.

Professor Boynton remotely controls and monitors his computers’ 24/7 harvesting of Twitter messages and examines the data collected for analysis. His research focuses on dissemination of information about “real time” events, such as Iran’s nuclear production activity and President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. By undertaking a systematic analysis of Twitter feeds and other social media, he sheds light on the shifting information landscape and explores emerging areas of research on the intersection between these new media and politics. Boynton publishes reports about his new media research with supporting data on his Web site, and, of course, posts updates on Twitter (@bobboynton).

During the fall 2009 semester, Professor Boynton also involved his students in his Twitter research. His Multimedia Politics and Global Communications class followed such topics as the H1N1 flu outbreak, the Afghanistan war, and U.S. unemployment. Iowa Research Online features the Web reports the class produced with supporting data. Boynton plans to return to this valuable collection of data with future students.